Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Stein Butte

My physician tells me that if I exercise more, then I can live longer. Paradoxically though, it's one of life's many cruel little ironies that living longer makes it harder to exercise more so you can live longer. I had plenty of reason to ruminate on the circular logic of all this during a recent hike to the summit of Stein Butte, located almost astride the Oregon-California border. The labor to reach the Stein summit entailed a 9.4 mile hike with 2,400 feet of elevation gain on a day where the temperature was in the 90s, leaving me tired and sore when it was all over. No doubt, the hike was beneficial and increased my overall health but why does good exercise have to feel so bad?

Why you should use sunscreen
Beginning from the shore of Applegate Lake, right where the Middle Fork Applegate River, Elliott Creek, and the lake itself join forces and unite as one, the Stein Butte Trail wastes no time in heading uphill, and with good reason. Stein Butte's summit is 2,400 feet above the lake and you have just under five miles to get there. For math geeks like myself, that's just about five miles of nearly a 10% grade. The trail points due east across the map like a giant vector from advanced calculus class but from a lay standpoint, it's just a tough hike. 

Pretty to look at, so itchy to touch

The forest was the usual Siskiyou Mountains forest mix of oak, conifer, and madrone trees, with a lush green jungly undergrowth flourishing under the trees, comprised mostly of thick stands of poison oak bushes, just looking for an opportunity to torment susceptible and inattentive hikers. I'm happy to report that I managed to keep my bare legs from brushing up against any waving fronds of Satan's favorite plant, he'll have to try again next hike.

Some of the local fauna
Speaking of itchy things, mosquitoes were not much of an issue on this hike. The difference between mosquitoes in the Cascades and mosquitoes in the Siskiyous is like the difference between a piranha and a guppy. The Siskiyou mosquitoes will tap you on the shoulder and say "Excuse me sir, may I please have a drop of your blood? I'm expecting and need it for my million babies." Their Cascades sistren (the mosquitoes that bite are females who need the blood to lay eggs, no sexist or misogynist slant intended) don't ever bother to ask. So it was rather pleasant not to have to deal with the rapacious hordes of miniscule Dracula spawn, excepting for the one that I accidentally inhaled and ate while breathing heavily on the way up.

Forest typical of Elliott Creek Ridge
Speaking of "on the way up", there was plenty of that on this hike. The trail was basically following the spine of Elliott Creek Ridge by switching from the north-facing side of the ridge to the south-facing side, and then back again, ad infinitum. South-facing slopes tend to be dry and arid, populated with scratchy chest-high thickets of manzanita bushes. The north-facing slopes tended to be cooler, shadier, and well-populated with firs, ferns, and other assorted greenery. Naturally, I'm a fan of the north-facing slopes. However, the south-facing slopes had their own awesome vibe, for the lack of trees did provide some pretty good views of the nearby Red Buttes Wilderness.

The Red Buttes dominated the scene to the southwest
Elliott Creek Ridge dropped steeply away from the trail, bottoming out at its namesake creek, and then shooting back up to the Siskiyou Mountains. The Red Buttes Wilderness straddles not only the Oregon-California border, but the Siskiyou crest as well. Having hiked in that area before on the Boundary Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, I could pretty much slap names on all the peaks extending in an unbroken chain from White Mountain to Grayback Mountain. The Red Buttes looked more orange than red, their twin peaks standing forever at attention next to equally orange Kangaroo Mountain, which does not have kangaroos on them as far as I know.

Not one, but two false summits to
psychologically contend with
The view straight ahead, along Elliott Creek Ridge, showed a small rounded peak looming above. When I first hiked this trail, I was all happy and excited to see what presumably was the summit of Stein Butte, signifying a potential joyful ending to all the bad uphill grade, Ah, I was so young and innocent then and Stein Butte is a cruel and capricious taskmaster, serving up not one, but two false summits. So, now that I'm officially an old and grizzled veteran of this trail, I didn't get too excited about seeing the first false summit this time.

My car is down there by the lake
The good news though, was that while still going uphill, the trail eased up on the rate of elevation acquisition, choosing to continue the uphill trending grade in a series of up and down rollers. At bare saddles in between false summits, views to the north impressed, offering up good looks at Little Grayback Mountain, Mule Mountain, and the Applegate River valley. Down there at Elliott Creek Ridge's crusty feet lay Applegate Lake, its many arms full of blue-green water contrasting with the surrounding dark hills and mountains. I could see a tiny road bridge spanning a narrow arm of the lake and realized my car was tucked behind a wooded ridge just beyond the bridge. Man I've got a long way to go and then get back, and I'm not even at the summit yet!

The actual summit of Stein Butte
The last push to the summit was the steepest part of the whole hike but thankfully, it was short and painful, kind of like eating a ghost pepper sandwich, and I did that very thing on the Stein Butte summit. There used to be a lookout here but all that is left of the old tower is the rocky foundation rubble, which serves as a windbreak when there is wind and I sat there for a bit, taking in the views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. I had been looking at these peaks for much of the hike but the difference was that on Stein Butte, I could see in all directions as opposed to just whatever direction the ridge or forest would allow from the trail.

It was peeling season in the forest
I was fairly spent from the hike to the summit so it was a good thing the return leg was all downhill. As previously stated, I had a long way to go, so my pace was slow and relaxed and I took photos of whatever I was staring at during the moment. In the shady forest, the dappled afternoon sunlight began to lengthen shadows and the madrones were peeling off their orange paper-thin covering, exposing a green trunk underneath for all the world to see. I know just how those madrones feel.

Knobcones, waiting for a forest fire to germinate the seeds
After 4.7 miles of hiking from Stein Butte, the trail spit me out onto the gravel road where my car was parked. If exercise is good for me, then I certainly did myself about 7.3 favors. However, the hike had been tough, the day hot (I had run out of water about a mile from the finish), so the trying conditions certainly should have some deleterious effect on my life span. Or maybe it's just a wash, I'll just live as long as I live and that's that. I'll have to ask my physician and ignore her answer if I don't like it.

The last little push to the Stein Butte summit
Despite my grumbling about the workout, this is truly a great hike and I do recommend it on a day where it is not so hot. For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

1 comment :

  1. Glad to see you made it down our way for a nice little (?) climbing hike.....we remember Stein Butte well ourselves. Maybe that is why we haven't hiked it again......but as you said, it's for our good and longevity. Keep trekking!